Stop Taking Your Practice Mindset onto the Stage

You’ve worked so hard on how you practice. Got the process streamlined and efficient to maximise your learning.

All your exercises are laser-focused on what you want to improve. You can get into that practice mode effortlessly, spot any imperfections straight away, and immediately calculate what you need to do to fix them.

But did you realise that every step you take that improves your practice could be dragging your performance down?


Practice mindset and performance mindset should be two different things

There are different demands on ​you when you perform and when ​you practice.

Your goals are different.

So your mindset needs to be different too.

And ​you want to be able to access that mindset easily whenever ​you perform.

As Charlie Parker said: “You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

But you probably spend much more time practicing than performing. You assume that when you want to “just wail”, it will be easy. When it comes to that moment, though, you’re confused to find yourself still trapped in your practice mindset.

You don’t fully realise that you need to develop and nurture BOTH mindsets. You need to work on that performance mindset so it’s available when you want it.

Without this awareness, the imbalance between practice and performance time results in ​you continually strengthening your practice mindset at the expense of ​your performance mindset.

The big danger here is that the short-term results encourage you to focus on practice

Pouring all your energy and focus into efficient practice gives you observable progress in the practice room.

Everything seems to be going brilliantly.

Right up to the point where you get on stage to perform and fall well short of your potential because you simply don’t have access to that performance mindset.

Maybe you blame lack of sufficient practice as the problem. Or maybe you don’t even realise how much we’re selling yourself short and think that your performance is just inevitably going to be at a lower level than your practice.

Either way you head back to the practice room and throw yourself back into the practice mindset. You don’t realise that this is the very thing holding you back.

Lack of a great performance mindset can also reduce your enjoyment of performance, subtly nudging you to practice more and perform less in the future. The cycle keeps going round and reinforcing itself.

In order to fix this, you need three elements:

  1. Know what your performance mindset wants to be
  2. Be able to adopt that mindset in practice as well as in theory
  3. Be able to make the switch at the right time, on demand

What does an ideal performance mindset/state look like?

Your ideal performance mindset should be more about the big picture than the little details.

It’s about conceiving the music that you want to create really clearly and vividly in your mind. Your focus is always on what you’re doing RIGHT NOW to realise that conception fully.

It’s not about noticing what’s gone wrong (or even what’s gone right).

It’s definitely not about analysing what’s just happened.

That’s really useful after the fact, but it’s positively unhelpful during the performance.

Yes, you do need to listen to what you’re playing as you perform. But it’s the conceiving part that’s more important than the listening part. And the listening is purely for feedback, not for analysis or judgement.

If the thought of not analysing what you play in real time bothers you, then I suggest you make a habit of recording your performances. That allows you to go back later and analyse to your heart’s content.

It’s also not about carefully controlling all of your physical movements.

As long as you have a really clear conception of the sound you want then you can trust your body to find the right way to make it a reality.

If that sort of mindset seems very strange to you, don’t worry

The thought of it might even make you feel uncomfortable.

You’re not alone in this.

It’s very common for conscientious musicians to get used to operating in a practice mindset. It tends to become their comfort zone.

In order to redress the balance, you’re going to have to spend a fair bit of practice time deliberately heading the other way.

Choose a piece to play, get ready, and launch into it aiming to adopt a performance mindset.

Hear what you want to play clearly in your mind before you play it – don’t analyse what you’ve just played.

Think of the bigger picture you’re looking to communicate – don’t worry about the little details.

And just let the music happen freely – don’t try and control your playing.

It will feel strange at first.

To start with, you may well find that you frequently fail to achieve this mindset at all. And you’ll almost certainly find yourself regularly slipping back into an analysing, detail-focused, practice mindset despite your best intention to stay with a performance mindset.

If you stick with it, though, you’ll make progress.

The more time you spend working on it, the stronger your connection to this state will get.

Ultimately, you want to be able to access the performance mindset in an instant

And, in a real performance situation, there will probably be temptations to veer towards the practice mindset. When the stakes are high​, we want to be able to control the little details. To judge how well we’re playing. To avoid mistakes.

A great way to improve this is to use a pre-performance routine to help you access your ideal performance state.

You can build in aspects to the routine that help you achieve that performance mindset.

There’s a further hook, though. As you repeatedly practice using the routine to access your performance mindset you’ll start to associate the two things. Over time, going through the routine will, in itself, help you to achieve your desired performance state.

Moving forward

We’ve seen that your performance mindset and your practice mindset should be two different things.

Unless you’re performing as much as you practice, though, the chances are that you’re unwittingly biasing yourself towards adopting a practice mindset all the time.

Developing a strong performance mindset and learning to access it can make a massive difference to how well you perform. It will take time to get it working, though. It can also be a constant battle to stay with that mindset as you play, and to resist the temptation to go back to analysing and judging.

Ultimately, this is not something that you ever “finish”.

Like all the most rewarding things, you can carry on deepening your understanding and skill indefinitely.

But the benefits are huge – each step you take along the way will increase both the level of your performance and your enjoyment of the performing experience.

Do you have a clear separation between your practice and performance mindsets? Let me know in the comments below.

Oh and before I go

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  • One step I have taken to try and differentiate practice and performance mindset is by using designated rooms at home for each. For creating, learning and practising I am in my lounge and for performance mindset I am in another room where I am set up with a mic and amp as if performing live….I am not actually performing live yet on my own, which is my goal, but this is helping me build up to that and to develop a procedure for getting into the performance mindset as a habit…..

    • Thanks for sharing that, Annie. Sounds like a great way to mark the difference between the two states.

      How are you splitting your time between the two? Is it mostly “practice”, or are you managing to do a good chunk in performance mode?

  • At practice, or rehearsal, I focus on the small stuff. Every note perfect, every part rehearsed over and over until I can’t get it wrong.
    In performance, I simply play my music. If I miss a note, or make a mistake oh well, I play through it. If the other guys do the same , I don’t get angry, we play through it. I found out that if you dwell on little things during performance, you’ll lose track and stumble even worse. It’s all for the show!

    • Thanks for the comment, Steven. And it sounds like you’re going about things in exactly the right way!

      Do you find it easy to “simply play your music” in performance, though? I know a lot of musicians (myself included occasionally) go in with that intention but then find themselves getting sucked into dwelling on the little things. That’s where working on getting into a performance mindset can be important work.

  • As usual an informed analysis of secrets to improving your performance and satisfaction with your individual effort. I have found all the articles of interest and caused me to analyse my approach to developing as a musician. Made me focus on the right things and ensure I am learning and able to take different perspectives as required ( performance vrs practise).

    • So good to hear that you’re applying this material, Peter. Focusing on the right things is so important. It’s easy to think that lots of hard work is what’s required. But a little bit of focused work on the most important topic will beat hours of distracted work in the wrong area any day!

  • Yes! So obvious now you mention it. Now sharing this idea with a 40 strong choir will be a stretch but if it does enlighten some of the lads we may be on to something.

    • Glad this was helpful for you, Mario. and I love your plan to share the idea with your choir! Please report back and tell me how it goes.

  • OK Mark, per your video I’m going to give recording myself in performance mindset a try. Thanks for all the useful tips.

  • Another great article Mark. I can relate to this exactly, practice, practice, practice, but the fruits of the practice are too often not realized in the performance, so as you’ve pointed out you put your focus on practicing more. Sounds that you have the solution for getting off this merry go round.

    • Thanks for the comment, Vincent. It takes some effort to break the cycle because it can feel like you’re going against common sense. But it’s well worth doing.

  • Thanks sooo much Mark, this makes a lot of sense to me and I think this is where I’m failing, staying in practice mode! Can’t wait to try this out, will let you know how it goes. Such valuable information, sooo glad that I have found you!

  • Even while I think we must focus on little things and drill mechanically in practicing, I also think there is no separation in the long run, from the mindset of performing. Because in the practice room, after doing the mechanical drill and technical work, we play the piece and listen, working on phrasing, harmonies, textures, tone, etc so in the end, the performing and practicing mindsets, unite in the practicing room too.
    Once on stage, forget about it, and think about nothing but the art and the music. I think if we stay true to the art, having practiced a great deal before hand, then we are bound to be more relaxed in performance and to not only enjoy it ourselves, but the audience will too. If we are measuring and analyzing our technical performance during performing as we do in the practice room, we get into over-focus and tied up in knots, and become nervous. It is when we try to impress that we may fall apart, vs when we play for love and true artistry, again having practiced and mastered our technique ahead of time, then we have a good performance, and a good experience. My two cents. I think the way is very individualized, depending on who we are and our inner process, so what I say here may apply to some and may not, for others. This is however, what does work for me.

    • Great to hear that you naturally manage to let go of analysis when you perform, Drina. For many other musicians (myself included), though, this takes deliberate practice!

  • Thanks. I feel truly challenged musically but I am learning the piano and would like to get better.

    I have avoided recording myself. But will give it a try this week.

    I usually will only play for myself and at my piano lesson..

    Need rhythm help.

  • Hi Mark,
    let me tell you why I find everything so important. After having read through all your e-mails and all the comments it reminds me of a performance in a church accompanying a friend and colleague of mine in the opening of his big art exhibtion. Because of the vast program I had to wait for nearly two and a half hours and at the time when my part began I had already drunk three little glasses of red wine.
    I had spent a lot of time practicing and arranging the pieces – Bach´s well- tempered “Klavier” Book II , numbers 18 – 24 , preludes and fugues.
    But I had no idea of a performance mode whatsoever.
    What happened was that all the visitors, guests and the priest and the artist himself, his wife and his son
    started to walk around and began talking !
    I felt treated like a radio!
    Nobody noticed because they couldn´t see me.
    In the middle of my program I nearly freaked out !
    I started to improvise and hammered on the organ keys. Everybody seemed to think this was part of the
    performance but it was pure … I still don´t know what
    it was !
    After that I started to play and continue my prepared
    program and finished without mistakes.
    Just ten minutes after the end of the concert and a few warm words of the priest we, my wife and I, left the church and hurried to the parking place.
    I was really hyper-ventilating!!

    So much to the cord which struck me

    Thanks a lot , Mark, for all your efforts

    Hope to hear from you again soon

  • I’m working on this, on making it feel gradually more the norm. It definitely works and I enjoy the effects. I also sense I will experience further changes; I think I’ll be able to keep an open mind as this happens … I’m practicing not to allow mistakes to dismay me and to bounce back from them instead, among other things. It’s liberating and very positive, thank you.

    • So great that you’re working on this, Katherine. Like any other skill, it needs practice. But so many of us just assume that we “should” be able to do it naturally…

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